Sunday, 27 April 2014

The Normal Heart: To win a war you have to start one

I'm really looking forward to The Normal Heart, the HBO film of Larry Kramer's monumentally important 1985 play. The was the first truly great play to address the HIV AIDS crisis: a passionate play of politics and polemics that reinvented the civil rights movement. Ned Weeks, the play's central character and Kramer's alter ego, railed against and changed a world that had fallen silent in the face of catastrophe. One of the play's chief targets was President Ronald Reagan, who infamously did not utter the word "AIDS" until September 1985, four years into the epidemic and five months after this play.

It came just a year before Timothy Conigrave's Soft Targets at Sydney's Griffin Theatre Company, a play that was Australia's first theatrical response.    

At first, no one wanted to produce The Normal Heart, but it became a triumph for Joe Papp's Public Theater. The film rights were promptly optioned by Barbra Streisand in 1986. It's been a long and troubled journey. At various times John Schlesinger, Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes have been attached or interested. Finally, after 30 years, the film will premiere on HBO on May 25. 

Martin Sheen in his Royal Court dressing room
The play and its afterlife have affected me greatly. Holding the Man is one result. I was lucky enough to see the London premiere of The Normal Heart at the Royal Court Theatre. This new production starred Martin Sheen as Ned Weeks. It had such impact that I wrote the actor a fan letter. A few days later he invited me to visit him in his dressing room after a performance: here was an actor of articulated social conscience. He was generous, shared much, and assured me forward.

Monday, 21 April 2014

On the Occasion of Shakespeare's 450th Birthday

The remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that he is really very good - in spite of all the people who say he is very good.

(Robert Graves)

First encounter

Scratch a theatre director, and you're likely to find a bit of Shakespeare just below the skin. And so it is with me.

One of of my very earliest theatre experiences was of Shakespeare: Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, with the touring Old Vic Company, directed by Toby Robertson. The production played at Her Majesty's Theatre (now apartments) in Sydney for five nights in December 1979.

I remember little, other than I found it 'superlative'. My diary records this response. I must have just learned the word.

Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, 1979.
Later, I realised what a key production and performance this was. Earlier that year, the Old Vic (actually, the Prospect Theatre Company resident at the Old Vic) became the first English-speaking company to play in post-revolutionary China. Jacobi also enjoyed the distinction of being the first English actor since Laurence Olivier to play the part at Elsinore. A year later, after two years touring, Jacobi recorded his Hamlet for the fraught BBC Shakespeare series. He tried to start from scratch - the television production had a different director and cast, and played a much fuller version of the text, cutting just a few hundred lines. Looking at it now, this TV version seems incredibly clumsy, quite amateurish in places. Still, you get a sense of what a landmark performance Jacobi's undoubtedly was.   

Jacobi was 41 when he played Hamlet in Sydney - old for the role, even by standards of the time. I can't say I was aware of it. But what he lacked in youth was made up for in genius.

School encounters

In my final year at Maitland Marist Brothers high school, the first part of Henry IV was the compulsory text. The year before it was Othello, I think, and it seemed to us that we were being short-changed: instead of a famous tragedy we were lumped with a play no one had heard of. In fact, we got by far the better deal. Othello is relatively dull, stretching at credibility, compared with the glorious life and variety of I Henry IV.

The Signet Classic edition I devoured
I devoured it. Hal, drinking with his mates but not giving all away, reflected something of my own youth. My school was not one with an interest in the arts, nor one that was academically progressive. It was a school of rugby league and cricket. I was hopeless at league, but serviceable at cricket and enjoyed playing it. I would happily drink with mates after a Saturday club game while also, secretly, looking forward to heading home and drowning in the Boar's Head Tavern. Hal resonated in a way that made me examine my own friendships.

The brilliant construction of the play, always connected to life, held me in awe. The lived rhythms of Act 2 Scene 4, in which Hal and Falstaff move through gut-splitting comedy before landing in heart-tearing pathos is, I think, one of Shakespeare's most astounding sequences. I know nothing like it in English drama.

Hamlet, as is its habit, returned. While at school, I decided to mount a production. Perhaps Jacobi's ghost was lingering. Naturally, I would play Hamlet - and design the show, look after the lights and realise the fight choreography. Like Falstaff gathering buddies, or Hal gathering food for powder, I enlisted much of the cricket team to play the other roles. We rehearsed after school for months. I borrowed foils and costumes from a local amateur theatre company, and I'm sure I used sheets for the ghost scenes. There might have been ultraviolet lighting. It was a much truncated text, probably no more than 90 minutes long, but since I was playing Hamlet the show retained all the soliloquies. We performed the play for the rest of our class and the year below us, and then threw on a couple of night shows for parents.

It was about this time that I discovered that John Bell had attended the school. A dusty trophy cabinet revealed that John was Dux in 1956.